Gunnison leaders explain need for police fee
By Robert Stevens
Sept. 21, 2017
GUNNISON—Residents of Gunnison came out to a public hearing last week to give input, clarify details and express some concerns about a proposed police fee.
The hearing, which took place during Gunnison City Council on Wednesday, Sept. 14, began with Gunnison City Mayor Bruce Blackham explaining that the proposed fee, which would be 25 cents per month added to utility bills, would cover a recent cost increase for maintaining a school resource officer in what is now the Gunnison Valley Police Department (GVPD).
Blackham said that the county, the South Sanpete School District and the communities of Gunnison Valley had negotiated a contract 10 years ago to share the cost of paying for the resource officer.
The contract was up, Blackham said, and the new contract would cost about 9 percent more than the old one, meaning the Gunnison City share would also go up.
The mayor said that when Gunnison was running its own police department and the department had an extraordinary expense, the city council simply transferred money from elsewhere in the general fund to cover the need.
But now the GVPD has been formed and is an independent taxing entity, the mayor said, it is not a good practice for the city to appropriate revenue, beyond budgeted amounts, to cover cost overruns within the independent entity.
The GVPD has not yet exercised its option to levy property tax. Currently, Centerfield is covering its share of the GVPD budget by collecting a $15-per-month fee from its residents. Gunnison is covering its share by transferring what it formerly budgeted for its police department to the joint department.
The proposed 25-cent police fee, which be charged to more than 600 households in town, would raise about $1,700, just enough to cover Gunnison City’s share of the increased cost for the school-resource-officer contract.
Under state law, a public hearing is required to institute a new municipal fee, but once a fee is instituted, it can be raised without a hearing.
Gunnison resident Jonah White told the council he was concerned that the fee could potentially be raised again and again and become an open-ended account.
Councilman Shawn Crane clarified that although the city could technically raise the fee without holding a public hearing, such a fee increase would still have to be put on a council agenda, and all agendas are public. And, Crane said, raising the fee would still require a council vote.
Blackham told the audience he would not feel comfortable raising any fee by a substantial amount without input from the public. “We really do want to be transparent about these things,” Blackham said.
Steve Carter was the next resident to speak up at the hearing. “I moved here 12 years ago,” Carter said. “My (utility) bill has gone from $48 to $106 in that time. My wages sure haven’t doubled. I thought combining the police departments was to save money.”
Council members explained creation of the GVPD had the potential to save money by combining resources of the participating communities.
But officials said the potential savings would be possible only after a couple years of being up and running. And since the multi-city police department was just getting started, unforeseen expenses could arise.
Blackham said that both before and since the GVPD was established, Gunnison has covered unexpected police department expenses with transfers from the general fund. Such transfers have been as high as $7,000 per year.
“You’d be hard pressed to find any city that didn’t have to make transfers from various funds to balance the budget,” Blackham said.
But with the new independent structure of the GVPD, the city needed to get away from that practice, he indicated. With the fee in place, Gunnison City’s share of extraordinary police costs could be met with a contribution from the residents of Gunnison City.
Blackham told the council that, as long as he could recall, he had never seen a fee raised without a public hearing being held, even if it was within the city’s legal right to do so.
“Things might be transparent now,” said hearing attendee Jay Clayton, “but you’re not going to be mayor forever.”
Clayton also said he was worried the GVPD wouldn’t be the money saver residents had hoped for.
Blackham pointed out that the department had faced with some uncommon situations, such as a kidnapping and an accidental death case earlier this year.
“Cop work can be very expensive,” he said. “We didn’t see these things coming. We don’t want to have to do this, but it’s something we have to do to keep moving forward.”
He added, “Is the GVPD everything we’ve hoped for? No, but I think it has amazing potential, and I think it will achieve it.”